Aspen Institute Announces Five Finalists For 2024 Aspen Words Literary Prize

March 13, 2024

Conversation and awards at Morgan Library in Manhattan on April 25

March 13, 2024, Aspen, CO –– Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute, today announced the finalists for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.

The 2024 shortlist:

  • Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Pantheon – Penguin Random House)
  • Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal (Simon & Schuster)
  • Witness by Jamel Brinkley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux – Macmillan)
  • Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad (Grove Press – Grove Atlantic)
  • The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead Books — Penguin Random House)

The shortlisted titles address a broad range of important contemporary social issues, including immigration, spirituality, family, identity and the effects of violence on society. The finalists were selected by a five-member jury comprised of Lan Samantha Chang, Christina Baker Kline, Anthony Marra, Chinelo Okparanta and Simran Jeet Singh.

The $35,000 winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday, April 25 at The Morgan Library in New York City. The event, which is free and open to the public, will feature a conversation with the finalists moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of “All Things Considered,” National Public Radio’s flagship evening newsmagazine.


Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah helps us see what’s hiding in plain sight: the moral depravity of racism, mass incarceration and capitalistic violence—and the human capacity to rationalize it all. The action-packed storytelling draws in the reader, reminding us all that this dystopian future is not so far from our current reality. Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel is as provocative as it is illuminating, putting it in the company of classics such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.

Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal

In Temple Folk, Aaliyah Bilal gives us 10 sublime stories about spiritual loss and renewal among a cast of Black American Muslims. Bilal’s humane portrayals of ethical struggle deserve comparison to the short fiction of Anton Chekhov and Edward P. Jones, even as she demonstrates, on page after page, a vision and voice entirely her own. Temple Folk is that rarest of collections, one that leaves both its characters and its readers transformed.

Witness by Jamel Brinkley

These 10 superb short stories create complex and intimate portraits of characters whose lives have been marked, shaped and haunted by the act of bearing witness. In beautifully observed prose, Brinkley explores turning points of relationships with family members, friends and lovers. Set in the boroughs of contemporary New York, this profoundly moral collection explores the challenge of perception and the responsibility of love.

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

In elegant, nuanced prose, Isabella Hammad tells the story of Sonia Nasir, a stage actress living in London who returns to her homeland of Palestine to visit her sister, Haneen, after many years away, and finds herself roped into a production of Hamlet in the West Bank. Exploring themes of diaspora, displacement and the search for identity, Hammad constructs a world rich in texture and emotion. A poignant narrative of resilience and the quest for belonging, Enter Ghost is a dazzling story of self-discovery against the backdrop of displacement.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

A richly populated tour de force, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store tells a poignant tale about Chicken Hill, Pennsylvania—a melting pot of immigrants and descendants of immigrants from across various social classes, racial backgrounds and walks of life. James McBride masterfully weaves a captivating narrative around this eclectic mix of characters, delving into the politics of race and class with grace and humor. Ultimately, the story offers a powerful exploration of community, humanity, action versus inaction, kindness against wickedness, and, most notably, poetic justice.

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Aspen Words was founded in 1976 as a literary center based in Aspen, CO. A program of the Aspen Institute, its mission is to encourage writers, inspire readers and connect people through the power of stories. For more information, visit


The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization whose purpose is to ignite human potential to build understanding and create new possibilities for a better world. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve society’s greatest challenges. It is headquartered in Washington, DC and has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, as well as an international network of partners. For more information, visit


The $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize is awarded annually to an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. Open to authors of any nationality, the award is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States, and one of the few focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. The inaugural award was presented to Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees. Tayari Jones won the 2019 prize for An American Marriage, her novel about racism and unjust incarceration; Christy Lefteri received the 2020 prize for her novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, about Syrian refugees; Louise Erdrich won the 2021 award for The Night Watchman, about Native American dispossession, and Dawnie Walton received the 2022 prize for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, which explores identity, place and the influence of pop culture. Kamil Jan Kochai was awarded the 2023 prize for The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, a powerful short story collection about Afghans, Afghan Americans and the surreal, violent aftershocks of state violence. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, racism or other social issues.


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Elizabeth Nix
Aspen Words Senior Program Manager | The Aspen Institute 

Katherine Roberts
Carington Creative

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